I would not usually begin a review, in media res. However, for reasons that will become, I hope, abundantly clear, I am going to start discussing the latest episode of American Gods by focusing on an aspect that surfaces about halfway through the run time. Because, you see, it will be tempting to refer to last night’s episode of American Gods as controversial. But I am not certain there is much room or cause for controversy in our modern world. Because something is uncommon, is it immediately controversial? Almost certainly not. And though the element of the episode which could be considered, potentially, controversial is brief and poignant, I suspect it will elicit a stronger response amongst those made uncomfortable by it than any other of the vast and major components of the story.
But let’s not be coy; let’s address this perky elephant dead on, head on, and call it what it is. Last night’s episode of American Gods featured a moderately explicit sex scene between two men. I was aware of the scene in question and a certain buzz around it for the entirety of the week leading up to it, and came to refer to it mentally as “the porkening.” Because I am extremely classy. The basic facts of the scene are these: an Arabic salesman named Salim meets a taxi driver, who also happens to be a Jinn. The two, both isolated and ignored, lonely and invisible, share a moment of connection and Salim invites the Jinn up to his hotel room. The Jinn assures Salim that he cannot grant wishes (if he could, would he be driving a cab, he asks) and the two share a night of very Bryan Fuller-esque passion. In the morning, the Jinn leaves in Salim’s own shitty, powder blue suit, and Salim assumes the Jinn’s identity. He is given anonymity and perhaps a second chance. There is a quick flash of dong (I am using, of course, the exact anatomical term here), but beyond that, the most marked feature of the sex scene is a moment when the Jinn turns into a strange, onyx beast, rather like the Wendigo for my Hannibal fans. The novelty is in the tenderness, I suspect. So often in sex scenes, the female body in particular is fetishized for the male gaze (consider how many men were made uncomfortable by last night’s episode but were entirely ok with seeing Bilquis have sex with another woman. It is not homosexual relationships that make them uncomfortable, but MALE homosexual relationships), but this particular sequence did not cash in on gratuity. It instead focused on connection; genuine intimacy. I could write about the cultural implications of Salim and the Jinn for days, but I’ve already used half a page, so let’s move on.
We start the episode meeting Anubis (played with ineffable, honey voiced calm by Chris Obi), as he guides an immigrant woman through her own death. Shadow wakes up early and challenges Czernobog to a re-match (recall that when we last left our hero, he had lost a checkers challenge and had agreed to let Czernobog bash his head in at dawn). The revised terms are that should Shadow win, Czernobog still gets to kill him, but only after he aids Wednesday. If Shadow loses, Czernobog gets two swings to kill Shadow with. Because the series would be very short indeed if Shadow were to be killed at dawn, he wins, and Czernobog agrees to the new terms. Wednesday puts the incredibly smooth moves on Zorya Cloris Leachman, and we are treated to a surprisingly tender and truly romantic scene between two older actors. Meanwhile, Mad Sweeney’s luck has turned to shit, and he is trying to get back the coin he realizes Shadow took from him. He starts out hitchhiking, but things go poorly when his driver (Scott Thompson, whose presence made me literally yelp with joy) meets a bloody demise. Wednesday realizes he needs some scratch, so he guides Shadow through a two man con, that has people happily handing their money to him. Shadow enjoys it despite himself, throwing himself into the improv of the situation. When Shadow gets back to his hotel room, he is immediately greeted by…Laura. Who you may recall is dead.
There is an absurd amount to unpack here; Salim and the Jinn represent how invisible immigrant workers often are in American culture; that they could trade places and no one would notice. While making copies together, Wednesday talks to Shadow about the many different cultural incarnations of Jesus. How necessary it is that whatever god we pray to looks like us, specifically. And while these heady concepts hang thick and are handled with intense grace and eloquence, the most impressive trick the show manages is in making these characters so infinitely nuanced. Wednesday’s concern about being forgotten could be the same fear any older person feels, afraid of being put into a nursing home someday, only thought about during visits, and only visited on holidays and birthdays. Shadow’s conflict between seeing what is happening and believing what he is seeing is the essence of humanity; we make up stories to explain what we can’t understand. We invent belief. And while certainly Shadow could be viewed as an archetype of humanity at large, there is the tiny added detail that he likes marshmallows. Enormous, .00001 percent body fat Ricky Whittles grudgingly admitting he likes marshmallows humanizes Shadow in a way that 100 pages of exposition never could.
A quick word on foreshadowing; the show is lousy with it. Though I will do everything in my over-zealous power to avoid spoilers, it is getting more difficult to not acknowledge the intense foreshadowing of the plot, present most pregnantly in the growing bond between Shadow and Wednesday, and in the effortless way Shadow takes to Wednesday’s cons.
As for my continued personal crusade of Fuller Watch ’17, the sex scene felt extremely of Bryan. A good deal more cerebral than most shows, a little more abstract. And truly, the snarling creature the Jinn turns into could be the second cousin twice removed of Hannibal‘s wendigo. The woman’s death in the beginning is very reminiscent of Ned’s mother’s first death on Pushing Daisies, down to the fact that they were both cooking and that both deaths were fleeting and then final. Please feel free to throw up anything I missed in the comments!
Three episodes in and American Gods is proudly of itself. What other show treats an attraction between two older adults with respect but also heat? What other show could possibly make the one night stand between a man and Jinn so strangely effective and bittersweet? I am so excited to see where it goes and how it keeps destroying the mold.